When I began working at The Sea Grill in the late 90s, I came on as Assistant Director, which was just a fancy name for Assistant Manager of Restaurant Associates‘ flagship restaurant. One of the great aspects of the job was serving some of the most influential people on the planet. And none were more influential than the Rockefeller family.
Of the five boys descended from John D. Rockefeller Jr., only two were alive—Laurance and David. The others, Winthrop, Nelson, and John III, had all died in the 70s. Each day, around noon, David and Laurance would descend from their perch way atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza to have lunch and meet some of their colleagues and business associates. They both had regular tables that we’d hold for them. Laurance always sat at a small table for two in the line of traffic, and David would sit several yards behind him at a larger table for four in a more out-of-the-way mezzanine area. While Laurance usually came alone to meet his associates, David would arrive with one or two bodyguards. I guess he was the more well-known and public face of the family.
It took a few months before David would warm up to me, as he could be aloof. And Laurance was completely distant. There was just no way to crack his impersonal shell. In fact, I never once saw the brothers acknowledge each other while in the restaurant. Not even a parting goodby after lunch. I always thought this was strange. But the way I was able to crack David’s bubble was when two of his billionaire colleagues he was dining with at different times had mentioned me to him in passing, as I had known them from previous restaurants where I had worked. One was the CEO of Metromedia John Kluge and the other was Texas Oil Man Sid Bass.
Sid Bass I had met at Trattoria Dell’Arte as he used to come in with his then-wife Mercedes because they were on the board of Carnegie Hall across the street. No one really knew who they were when they came in to dine, and in consequence, they were usually seated at a cramped table and made to wait when the place was busy until one day I spotted them. From that day forward, Sid would call me ahead of time to let me know he was coming so that I could prepare a nice table for him and his wife.
But the story that I want to impart concerns one time when David Rockefeller came to dine at The Sea Grill on a busy Saturday night during Christmas week without a reservation. You see, the Rockefellers always came to dine during the week and almost never on the weekends. And on this particular night, a long line had formed outside the restaurant’s doors with diners who had already made reservations weeks in advance, all hoping to grab one of the best tables. Just before we let everyone in, I went outside to check off the reservations of each guest before letting them in, when lo-and-behold I spotted David Rockefeller and a friend waiting at the end of the line. No one standing in the queue knew who he was. And I was so surprised that he was waiting in line like everyone else. But that’s just how he was. He was a self-effacing person who did not expect to be treated any more special than others. So I approached him and told him I could bring him in right away. And he said, “are you sure? I have made no reservations and don’t want to impose. I just took a chance that you might have something open.” I replied, “not to worry. Just follow me.” So, I ushered him to his regular table, and he was happy.
After this episode, I received warm greetings from David every time he dined for lunch. And when his autobiography came out, he gave me a personally signed book, which I still treasure ’til this day.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.